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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Luc Godard’

Alphaville (1965)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” – the super computer Alpha 60, in Godard’s Alphaville

Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is one of the most effective visions of a Dystopian future every created for the screen. Working with American-born French cult actor Eddie Constantine, Godard crafted a science-fiction narrative of the future, working in then-contemporary Paris, shooting mostly at night with available light, as he tells the story of Alpha 60, a gigantic computer than controls the zombified citizens of Alphaville, a futuristic metropolis in a distant constellation in interstellar space. Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a tough-as nails secret agent, whom he had also portrayed in a series of crime thrillers to diminishing returns before he teamed up with Godard.

Caution has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, free the citizens from its control, and rescue the beautiful Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), the daughter of Professor von Braun, aka Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon), the creator of Alpha 60. Lemmy accomplishes all of this in his usual tough guy fashion, while simultaneously matching wits with Alpha 60 in a philosophical battle of the wills.

Alpha 60: “What is your secret? Tell me, Mr. Caution.”

Caution: “Something which never changes, day or night. The past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”

Everything about Alphaville is corrupt; women are exhibited as objects for purchase, vending machines dispense cards saying “Thank You” in return for a franc (or “nothing for something”), and anyone in Alphaville who displays the slightest bit of emotion is immediately sentenced to death. Shooting in crisp black and white with his signature cameraman, Raoul Coutard, on a budget of roughly $100,000, Godard transforms images of Paris at night into a hellish depiction of the future, when no one cares about anything anymore, and hope, love and faith have been forgotten.

Here’s the trailer, which is typically Godardian. If you haven’t seen the film, click on the image below now; this is proof that a sharp, cold, and superbly calculated vision of the future can be accomplished with a few actors, existing cityscapes, and an imagination which was, at the time, boundless.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, in French with English subtitles.

Persona

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

It’s somewhat scandalous that I haven’t written a line on Ingmar Bergman yet, except to note that when his film The Touch failed at the box-office, and he found it impossible to get American distribution for his next project, that producer/director Roger Corman came to his rescue with partial financing and American distribution for Cries and Whispers. So, here’s a word or two in praise of Persona, perhaps my favorite of all of Bergman’s films, although I am partial some of the early work, especially Wild Strawberries.

Persona represented a huge leap forward for Bergman, who came from the theater, and for most of his life, would direct a theatrical production in Sweden each winter, and then venture forth with his stock company of actors and technicians to shoot a film every spring. Persona was to have been shot in the studio, but it almost immediately became apparent that this arrangement wasn’t working out, and so Bergman transported his crew and his actors — the two key actors are Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman — to his summer house on the island of Fårö, where his own house, as well as several local buildings, were used for the shooting,

What sets Persona apart from Bergman’s earlier work is its lack of theatricality; its austere sculptural presence; its plastic uses of the possibilities of the moving image, as when the film rips, or falls out of focus, or freezes; and especially the film’s hyper-edited, deeply self-reflexive introduction, in which Bergman conducts a whirlwind metaphorical tour of his imagistic past.

The set-ups in the film are flat, spare, and striking, and the overall embrace of aberrant, jarring cinematic devices reminds one inescapably of mid-60s Godard, especially with regard to Bergman’s lighting, sets, and his use of uncharacteristically long takes, using a static set-up to record minutes of action at a clip.

Bergman, however, publicly stated that he thought little of Godard’s work, commenting on one occasion that: “in this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

This dislike became even more pronounced as Godard’s career progressed, when Bergman fulminated that “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a [. . .] bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin/ féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mindnumbingly boring.”

But when I first saw Persona, in a screening I will never forget at the Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ, when it was first released (after being awake for some 36 hours working on films and various other projects), although I was dead tired, the film immediately jolted me awake, because it seemed to reflect the influence of no one so much as Godard, in framing, in style, in structure — in every respect.

Bergman’s usually dark and forbidding lighting, his rococo frames, overstuffed with suffocating bric-a-brac — quite intentionally, for many of his earlier films were period pieces  — were now cleared away, and the result was that the actors were in the foreground, rather than their surroundings; they created the world they existed in, rather than having it created for them by the sets and costumes. With Persona, Bergman entered the modern world.

Even Cries and Whispers, despite its enormous commercial success, seemed a throwback to Bergman’s earlier films, as if were escaping back to his childhood, and certainly the same can be said of his last films, especially the obviously semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, which to me, at least, was a ponderous bore. Persona, on the other hand, was fresh and new, and I remember thinking, with great force, how much Bergman had absorbed the philosophical and stylistic influence of the French New Wave filmmakers, especially Godard, who shares with Bergman a somewhat cold and unforgiving vision of the world, though Bergman, in his last years, seemed to become increasingly sentimental.

So, what can I say — I think Bergman protests too much. Persona is obviously indebted to Godard, and to the breakdown of cinematic tradition that personified the 1960s, whether he knew it, or admitted it, or not.

Here’s Susan Sontag’s take on the film; see what you think.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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